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COLLECTION Identifier: MC 646: T-373: Vt-179

Papers of Ellen Willis, 1941-2011


Papers of Ellen Willis, radical feminist and journalist.


  • Creation: 1941-2011

Language of Materials

Materials in English.

Access Restrictions:

Access. Unrestricted, except that folders #2.1-2.4 are closed until the death of Robert Christgau and #2.5-2.7 and 2.16 are closed until the death of Greil Marcus. An appointment is necessary to use any audiovisual material.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright. Copyright in the papers created by Ellen Willis is held by the President and Fellows of Harvard College for the Schlesinger Library. Researchers must obtain the written permission of Nona Willis-Aronowitz before publishing quotations from materials in the collection. Copyright in other papers in the collection may be held by their authors, or the authors' heirs or assigns.

Copying. Papers may be copied in accordance with the library's usual procedures.


4.17 linear feet ((10 file boxes) plus 2 folio folders, 1 folio+ folder, 1 oversize folder, 1 photograph folder, 1 audiotape, 3 videotapes, electronic records)

The papers of Ellen Willis include correspondence, notes, drafts, published articles, teaching files, etc. Most of the collection arrived at the library unfoldered. Folder titles in quotations are Willis's; all others were created by the archivist. While preparing the collection for shipment, Willis's daughter Nona made identifying notes on some documents. These have been kept with the documents, and are generally on pink paper.

Series I, BIOGRAPHICAL AND PERSONAL, 1941-2011 (#1.1-1.16, E.1), contains diaries, financial documents, awards, legal documents, and resumes. Willis's notes from several meetings of her feminist women's group are included, as are several printed radical feminist statements. Also included is a folder of material from Willis's daughter Nona's early schooling. Willis served as editor and writer for the newsletter of Nona's preschool in Brooklyn, New York. Folders are arranged alphabetically. Willis' web site is being captured periodically as part of Harvard University Library's Web Archive Collection service (WAX); searchable archived versions of the web site will be available through this finding aid in 2010.

Series II, CORRESPONDENCE, 1947-2005 (#1.17-3.16), contains Willis's family, personal, and professional correspondence. Willis's letters to her cousin Judy Altman Oppenheimer detail her teenage years and high school and college experiences. After she moved to California with husband Harvey Leifert in 1962, Willis wrote lengthy letters back to her family about music concerts she saw (both classical and rock), a newspaper cooperative in which she and Harvey were involved, politics (local, state, and national, including the 1964 presidential election), her volunteer work with CORE and the civil rights movement in general, student unrest at the University of California, Berkeley, etc. Harvey Leifert's letters to Willis are from Africa and Haiti, while he was stationed at the U.S. embassies there, and discuss conditions in those places and his impressions of the foreign service in general. Several letters Willis wrote to her brother Michael address issues of Judaism. Letters from rock critics Robert Christgau and Greil Marcus discuss rock musicians, concerts, journalism, cultural politics, etc. Correspondence from the 1960s is mainly from editors, college friends, and several people who worked for the State Department and were stationed internationally. Most of the general personal correspondence from the 1970s and later is brief postcards. Several letters Willis's younger brother Michael wrote to his parents from summer camp are also included. The series is arranged with personal correspondence first, followed by professional. Professional correspondence relating to New York University can be found in Series IV.

Series III, WRITING, 1958-2005 (#4.1-8.8, FD.1, E.2), contains Willis's drafts, notes, background material, and printed copies of her published work. Included are book reviews, newspaper columns, short stories and unfinished novels, newspaper articles, and an unpublished comic strip, among other types of writing. It includes both fiction and nonfiction, and is arranged in two subseries.

Subseries A, Unpublished notes and drafts, 1958-ca.2004 (#4.1-6.1), contains Willis's unpublished and unfinished fiction and nonfiction writing. Correspondence with editors turning down several of the 1960s pieces found here is in folder #3.10. An unpublished novel (#5.17-6.1) is semi-autobiographical about Willis's experience in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including her feminist awakening. Two folders of disparate material were titled by Willis: "Sex" (#5.6) contains a book proposal, drafts, and research; "Abortion" (#4.17) contains mainly background material, probably used for Willis's articles on abortion in the 1980s. Some drafts in this subseries, particularly those dating from the late 1980s, could possibly be drafts of speeches or published articles, but could not be positively identified as such. Drafts of published articles can be found in Subseries B. The subseries is arranged chronologically.

Subseries B, Published work, 1960-2005 (#6.2-8.8, FD.1, E.2), contains drafts, galleys, and printed copies of Willis's published articles, as well as reviews and other materials relating to Willis's three books of essays. The articles in this subseries span Willis's career in print, but the majority are her columns and articles for the Village Voice. Willis's article "The Sound of Bob Dylan" was first published in Commentary in 1967, and then expanded and published as "Dylan" in Cheetah of March 1968; copies of both articles as well as extensive notes are included. Several complete copies of Cheetah are also included; Willis was associate editor of the February, March, and April 1968 issues, and managing editor of the May 1968 issue. A few folders contain drafts only, most contain the published article, with any drafts noted. Correspondence about several articles in this subseries is in #3.12. The subseries is arranged chronologically.

Series IV, TEACHING, SPEECHES, AND LECTURES, 1980-2006 (#8.9-10.42), contains files relating to Willis's career at New York University, as well as drafts of speeches and lectures given throughout her career. The series is arranged in two subseries.

Subseries A, Teaching, 1990-2006 (#8.9-9.3), contains correspondence, teaching evaluations, class descriptions, etc. Willis taught journalism at New York University beginning in 1990. In 1995 she created and directed the Cultural Reporting and Criticism M.A. program within the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication. The subseries includes student evaluations of Willis's classes, administrative correspondence, and letters from colleagues regarding her application for tenure. A folder of research material on pornography for an NYU seminar on Sex and American Politics is also included. The subseries is arranged alphabetically.

Subseries B. Speeches and lectures, 1980-2005 (#9.4-10.42), contains Willis's handwritten or typed notes and drafts, often with copious annotations, for a variety of talks she gave. Speeches were identified when possible, unidentified notes are grouped by topic. Topics include radical feminism; legacies of 1960s political activism; sex-positive feminism; the concept of "family" and its relation to feminism and radical politics; abortion and reproductive rights; democracy and free speech; left activism and "the new left"; journalism and public intellectuals; cultural radicalism; Wilhelm Reich, Sigmund Freud and feminist ways of approaching sexual relations; etc. The subseries is arranged chronologically.

Series V. AUDIOVISUAL, PHOTOGRAPHS, AND OVERSIZED, 1993-2002 (T-373.1, Vt-179.1 - Vt-179.3, PD.1, FD.1-FD.2, F+D.1, OD.1), contains an audiotape, videotapes, a few photographs of Willis, and oversized materials described above. The series is arranged by format.

Additional material received on floppy disks will be reformatted at some future date. A web site dedicated to Willis's writing is being captured periodically as part of Harvard University Library's Web Archive Collection service (WAX); searchable archived versions of the web site will be available through this finding aid in 2010.

The two photographs in PD.1 are or will be cataloged in VIA, Harvard University's Visual Information Access database. Others, referred to as "uncataloged" photographs, are not of sufficient research interest to warrant cataloging and are simply treated as part of the documents they accompany; they are marked on the back with an asterisk in square brackets [*].


Ellen Jane Willis was born in New York City on December 14, 1941, the first daughter of Miriam Weinberger and Melvin Willis, a police officer. Willis was raised in Queens, along with two younger siblings, Michael and Penny. Willis attended Barnard College (A.B. 1962). She married Harvey Leifert in June 1962, and they moved to California later that summer, where Willis completed one year of graduate study in literature at University of California, Berkeley, while Leifert taught at San Francisco State University. In 1965, they moved to Washington, D.C., where Leifert trained for a post in the U.S. Foreign Service. Just before Harvey Leifert was posted to Ethiopia, the couple separated, and Willis returned to New York to become a journalist. They were divorced in 1967, while Leifert was still abroad. In 1998, Willis married sociologist and radical activist Stanley Aronowitz, with whom she had been living since the early 1980s. Their daughter, Nona Willis-Aronowitz, was born in 1984.

Willis wrote for Mademoiselle and Seventeen while still in college. As a result of her work there, she was hired to write a college advice book, Questions Freshman Ask: A Guide for College Girls (1962). In the late 1960s she began writing about rock music, radical politics, and feminism. In 1968 she served as associate editor and then managing editor of a short-lived magazine on music and popular culture, Cheetah. She was one of the founders of the radical feminist group Redstockings in 1969, and several of her early feminist writings were widely reprinted and circulated.

Willis was the first rock columnist for the New Yorker; she wrote the "Rock, Etc." column from 1968 to 1975. She was a contributing editor at Ms. (1972 to 1975), and at Rolling Stone (1976 to 1978), where she also wrote a column, "Alternating Currents." Willis was a staff writer at the Village Voice from 1979 to 1983, and a senior editor there from 1984 to 1990. In 1981, Willis formed No More Nice Girls, a pro-abortion street theater action group, with other women writers at the Voice.

Willis wrote widely about feminist and radical left politics, rock music, and cultural trends. She was critical of feminists who campaigned against pornography, and was on the planning committee of Barnard College's "The Scholar and The Feminist Conference IX" in 1982, which took up questions of sexuality, pleasure, and pornography. She wrote often about anti-Semitism, political oppression worldwide, and psychoanalysis, among other topics. After the birth of her daughter, she wrote a series of articles in the Village Voice on motherhood, radical family politics, and child care, and worked on a never-published book on those and similar topics. At the end of her life she was working on a book about Wilhelm Reich and radical psychoanalytic thought.

Beginning in 1990, Willis taught journalism at New York University. In 1995 she created and directed a Masters program there in Cultural Reporting and Criticism. She lectured widely and attended numerous academic conferences.

Willis published several books of her collected columns and essays: Beginning to See the Light: Pieces of a Decade (1981; reissued with a new introduction in 1992 as Beginning to See the Light: Sex, Hope, and Rock and Roll); No More Nice Girls: Countercultural Essays (1993); and Don't Think, Smile! Notes on a Decade of Denial (1999). Willis died of lung cancer in New York City on November 9, 2006.


The collection is arranged in five series:

  1. Series I. Biographical and personal, 1941-2011 (#1.1-1.16, E.1)
  2. Series II. Correspondence, 1947-2005 (#1.17-3.16)
  3. Series III. Writing, 1958-2005 (#4.1-8.8, FD.1, E.2)
  4. Series IV. Teaching, speeches, and lectures, 1980-2006 (#8.9-10.42)
  5. Series V. Audiovisual, photographs, and oversized, 1993-2002 (T-373.1, Vt-179.1 - Vt-179.3, PD.1, FD.1-FD.2, F+D.1, OD.1)

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Accession numbers: 2009-M36, 2009-M136, 2011-M80, 2014-M81

The papers of Ellen Willis were acquired from her daughter, Nona Willis-Aronowitz, in 2009. A clipping was donated by Kathryn Jacob in 2011, and a self-portrait by Willis was acquired from Southpaw Books in 2014.

Processing Information

Processed: July 2010

By: Jenny Gotwals

Updated: June 2014

By: Anne Engelhart

Willis, Ellen. Papers of Ellen Willis, 1941-2011: A Finding Aid
Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America
Language of description
Processing of this collection was made possible by gifts from the Radcliffe College Class of 1950 and the Radcliffe College Class of 1968.

Repository Details

Part of the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute Repository

The preeminent research library on the history of women in the United States, the Schlesinger Library documents women's lives from the past and present for the future. In addition to its traditional strengths in the history of feminisms, women’s health, and women’s activism, the Schlesinger collections document the intersectional workings of race and ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and class in American history.

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